Active listening

Seriously, Put the Phone Down

When was the last time you had a conversation with someone whose attention was completely focused on you? A person who never once looked at their handheld device? Who listened to what you had to say without interrupting to tell personal stories or to dispense advice? Chances are it’s been a while, if it ever happened at all. Between the interruptions from our devices and the breakneck pace of life, we have become a nation of distracted listeners.

Why does it matter?

The benefits of active listening are huge. Active listening can increase trust in relationships and reduce misunderstandings. (1,5) It opens people up and allows them to feel safe enough to describe feelings and fears in detail. (1) All of this helps to decrease interpersonal conflict.

The MOST group, an organization that works in nonviolent conflict resolution, taught active listening techniques to groups of refugees in Serbia. Despite tough living conditions and scarce resources–conditions that invariably lead to contention–the refugees successfully used active listening techniques to resolve conflict and improve relationships. (3)

Active listening moral of the day: if individuals fleeing horrifying conditions and suffering great loss can use active listening to overcome conflict, anyone can. Here’s how:

Attend with both body and mind

Active listeners’ body language says, “I am present. I am listening.” They make eye contact in a relaxed way. (Boring into the speaker’s skull doesn’t say “I’m listening.” It says, “I’m creepy.”) They stop whatever task they were doing when the conversation started so they can be focused. (2)

The mind of an active listener is attentive, processing the speaker’s words while resisting the temptation to simultaneously formulate a response. Active listeners don’t think about what they will say next. They just listen.

Probe

While the word “probe” sounds like a medical or alien procedure, in the language of listening it means, “draw them out.” This is best done by open ended questions like “How did that make you feel?” “What will you do now?” The speaker is encouraged to open up and better explore feelings and options. (2)

Don’t ask questions that may challenge the speaker, like “What were you thinking?” or “Why?” While open-ended, these questions may limit open dialogue by making the speaker defensive. Ask for clarification and elaboration in an understanding way. (5)

It’s not about you

We like to talk about ourselves, it is a human trait. And it is common for even the best listeners to use personal stories to make a connection. But research on active listening suggests that it is better to keep this kind of personal story sharing to a minimum. (5) Talking about our own experiences turns the conversation to us, and interrupts the active listening.

Finally, active listeners resist the temptation to dispense advice. (4) As wise and insightful as our advice is certain to be, people generally like to find their own solutions. Think about the last time you came to a friend with a problem and she cut you off with advice on how you should handle it. It was probably more annoying than helpful.

So if it isn’t about you, what’s in it for you to dedicate so much time to listen to another human being? You have stuff to do! The clock is ticking! The fact is, active listening is an investment in relationships. It will improve communication with spouse, children, friends, and colleagues and reduce potential conflict and stress in your life.

  1.   http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/activel.htm
  2.   http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-active-listening-makes-both-sides-of-a-conversation-feel-better-1421082684
  3.   http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/pers6815.htm
  4.   http://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/11/09/10-steps-to-effective-listening/#43eac54e26fb
  5.   http://www.wright.edu/~scott.williams/LeaderLetter/listening.htm
  6.   http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/comparative-media-studies-writing/21w-732-science-writing-and-new-media-fall-2010/readings/MIT21W_732F10_listening.pdf
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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